Release Date: September 18th 2020
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- Truth Without Love
- Time Machine
- Authors of Forever
- Wasted Energy (feat. Diamond Platnumz)
- 3 Hour Drive (feat. Sampha)
- Me X 7 (feat. Tierra Whack)
- Show Me Love (feat. Miguel)
- So Done (feat. Khalid)
- Gramercy Park
- Love Looks Better
- You Save Me (feat. Snoh Aalegra)
- Jill Scott (feat. Jill Scott)
- Perfect Way to Die
- Good Job
Alicia Keys has been influential in her music and craft for years. So much so that I wrote about her in a blog series I’m undertaking about influential music artists in modern music history (the blog can be viewed here), and so as I’ve delved into hearing her music over the last few months, I’ve since become impressed with her ability to be vulnerable in her music and thereby encourage others to embrace their vulnerability as well. For Alicia’s music has always been candid, on creating a space where people can ask questions of life, love, and the rest of it, music that has a certain universal appeal across musical tastes, gender, familial backgrounds and even religious affiliations. Alicia’s music, even to this day, has been instrumental in shaping music as it is, and as I reflect upon her career thus far, as an outsider looking in (I wasn’t that involved with hearing Alicia’s music career from the beginning), I make this statement, but not so lightly indeed- Alicia’s music, by far, has a more powerful reach than a lot of the soul/R&B/hip hop music released currently in the market. Yes, there’s a place for artists like Beyonce or even Rhianna, but I’ve always felt by hearing songs like ‘No One’, ‘If I Ain’t Got You’, ‘Superwoman’, ‘A Woman’s Worth’ and ‘Fallin’; that Alicia’s music slightly has the edge- creating music that challenges the status quo about a lot of issues that may have been untouched, swept under the rug and not discussed for years, had it not been for these melodies. Alicia’s songs have a certain raw and honest feel to them- there is a certain aspect of drive and passion that I’ve observed in Alicia’s vocals and her mannerisms in a lot of her online interviews, that I’ve haven’t seen as much of in the mainstream music industry, even up to this point, which is very unfortunate indeed. Alicia’s music, reach and impact stretches far and wide- songs like ‘No One’, ‘If I Ain’t Got You’, ‘Fallin’, ‘A Woman’s Worth’, ‘Girl on Fire’, ‘Superwoman’, ‘Brand New Me’, ‘Empire State of Mind Part II’, ‘In Common’ and ‘Blended Family’ are just some of the many, many songs she has unveiled to us all over the years, that you can all read about as I unpack her impact and influence to society in the blog post I undertook in May 2020. Now here I am in October, and Alicia Keys has unveiled to us yet another album- 4 years after her most challenging and heartfelt album to date, Here. ALICIA was released in the middle of September 2020, and while there have been some delays and pushbacks- because of COVID-19 and a few other things, the brand new album from Alicia is finally here, presenting to us 15 tracks of hope, encouragement, honesty, emotion and poignancy, all wrapped into this name of the album- ‘Alicia’- meaning that this set of songs most likely embodies what she has experienced in life thus far, and these songs fully encompasses where she is at the moment in the stage of life she is in.
For most of the year, ALICIA was TBA- release date unknown. While it was originally slated to be unveiled in March 2020, the COVID-19 experience changed all of that. Nevertheless, throughout the year Alicia unveiled to us a various amount of new songs- and by the time September rolled around, almost half the album was already released in the form of singles throughout the year. In that way ALICIA the album was already impacting people for the majority of 2020, and that her songs unveiled in 2020, has been some of the most honest and raw she has ever compiled in her whole career thus far. ‘Underdog’ in particular, is a song birthed in 2020 that has become an anthem for a lot of people around the world that have been in hardship and difficulty, exemplified and exacerbated by this uncontrollable pandemic that has been sweeping the globe. Initially ‘Underdog’ was for in fact the underdogs- the hustlers working in NYC, day in day out, trying to attain a dream that may or may not be within reach, the single mothers working 2 jobs and sometimes nights, just so that the money can be coming in, the marginalised and different, the people with physical ailments, or even those who may feel like they cannot fit into normal society because of the colour of their skin. ‘Underdog’ is an anthem for these people, as we understand that God Himself on high champions the underdog and cares for them deeply.
‘Underdog’, though I know it wasn’t based upon any Bible verse of any kind, still reminds me of the New Testament, and how in the book of James 1, we see what the true definition of what ‘religion’ could be- ‘…anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world…’ We are reminded that the underprivileged and overlooked have value, if it’s not in the sight of man, it’s in the eyes of the Lord. We are not to discount people because of what we perceive to be an inadequacy in them, but rather, see things from God’s POV- sometimes it can take being in fellowship or communion with someone who is different than you to realise the assumptions, judgement and condemnation you give to them is indeed unwarranted, and maybe they can even teach you things about yourself you may not have known, had it not been for that encounter. ‘Underdog’ is a great song by a powerfully soulful artist, one that I’m sure will become an anthem in the upcoming months for people fighting in the front-lines, placing their own lives at risk against the unseen enemy which is COVID-19!
‘…we’ve all been in that place where we have to overcome adversity. My life is different from yours, and your life is different from hers. Everybody has a different experience. But that ability to know that even when it feels like everything is at its worst, that there are these challenges that we can overcome—we can figure it out and we can have the tenacity to fight the way through it. That’s what “Underdog” is about. Like that word, I think a lot of the time that it might feel like [underdog is] a negative word, but to me it’s one of the most powerful things to find a strength in ourselves to defy the odds. And I personally really need to hear that right now. We’re surrounded by all this other energy that makes you confused and makes you doubtful. You feel frustrated and it makes you just want to curl up in a corner. These feelings are all valid. But to remember that we are meant to defy the odds? I just really need that right now personally… Part of the greatest stories ever have been those that have proved everything and everybody wrong. And I think in a way we’re all looking to do that, and we’re hoping that the dreams that we have or the vision we have for ourselves can literally prove those who don’t believe it wrong…’
Aside from ‘Underdog’, there has been a few other tracks from ALICIA unveiled to us throughout the year, that have still made an impact on people these last few months, me included. The ‘comeback’ single from Alicia in 2019 was ‘Show Me Love’ featuring American singer-songwriter Miguel, and features the duo exploring the theme of love in a lot of different facets- self love, the love between couples, the love that someone has in creating something that is of value to them, and the overall sense of love that is given to us from a ‘higher power’ as I’m sure Alicia and her collaborators assume that presence to be (but I know as a Christian this love given to us freely and unconditionally is from Christ Himself!). ‘Show Me Love’ also has a great music video/visual attached to it, with actors Michael B. Jordan and Zoe Saldana (and her husband) acting in this collaborated video, as we’re reminded that this notion and idea for love can be understood by a lot of people to mean different things. Nevertheless, ‘Show Me Love’ is a powerful concept, and a great revelation to know that to be loved without condition is sometimes a scary thing to understand and get our heads around. As Alicia says herself, ‘…none of us are just one way. We’re at work and we’re that way at work, or we’re with our family and we’re that way with our family, or we’re with our friends and we’re that way with our friends, and then we’re this way with ourselves. And so I’ve been focused on being more clear [about] who I am in all sides of it. I feel like it’s scary as sh*t to be who you really are. It just is. And it’s easier to kind of default to that one that works like, ‘If everybody knows me like this, Imma just do that.’ And then we’re growing and we’re trying to figure out, ‘Wait, why don’t I feel right in that space anymore?’ And I think it’s because we don’t give ourselves permission to be all the things we are…’ The song is asking for love to be shown to us, the kind that will never leave, the kind that will love us even when we show all sides of ourselves and we think no one will understand or even love us if we show the parts that we ourselves often deem to be unlovable. And this kind of love, has a name- Jesus. Alicia has delivered a stellar performance in this track, and for me, alongside ‘Underdog’, are some of the songs that have been impactful by Alicia of late, songs that I reckon will change the trajectory of people in the future, from those who may be self-centred, to people who puts the needs of the other before the self.
‘Good Job’, track #15 out of 15 in this new album, is a song written out of a gratitude of thanks and appreciation to all the unsung heroes who have made the place that we live, the place that we live. Even though the song wasn’t actually written and recorded in response to the hard work people in the essential services industry are undertaking in the wake of this COVID-19 experience, the song still has a lot of meaning for those working in these areas because of the virus. Totally unrelated to the pandemic experience, ‘Good Job’ was actually written for Alicia’s own mother, as she honours her parents and people who have built up the city she has lived in, before her, a reminder to always pay tribute to people who have gone before you had have had it tougher than you have at the moment. ‘Good Job’ has a unified feeling, as we give thanks to things that we have taken for granted all this time- our health being one. ‘Time Machine’, a track unveiled to us in November 2019, brings together elements of R&B, trip hop, funk and electronica to create a track full of emotion and heart, as Alicia presents a track that reminds us all to let go of the things that seem to trap us into this never-ending cycle of fear, shame and regret, understanding that life itself is no time machine- there is no way to travel back and make things better. Life is a series of experiences that we learn and grow from, and ‘Time Machine’ encourages us to appreciate the beauty in everything, freeing our mind from the guilt that often comes with the worry that what we have lived in our lives thus far hasn’t lived up to the picture and painting of what we may have perceived our lives to go. Nevertheless, ‘Time Machine’ is a track that can hopefully encourage us all to dance and live a little freer than maybe we have lived previously; while Alicia continues to present timeless and poignant themes throughout the rest of the album. ‘Perfect Way to Die’, perhaps the most emotional song on ALICIA, was written in 2019, and was inspired by a lot of the useless and senseless killings of black people over the years, and the reconciliation of that fact in the head of Alicia as she wrote something that tried to make sense of the hurtful things that she had seen throughout the years. To put such emotion in the song is what makes ‘Perfect Way to Die’ a track that’s going to be reflected upon and sung in weeks and months to come, and as Alicia herself paints a picture as to the inspiration behind the track, we see that ‘…of course, there is NO perfect way to die. That phrase doesn’t even make sense. Just like it doesn’t make sense that there are so many innocent lives that should not have been taken from us due to the destructive culture of police violence…it [the song] was written a little while ago, but right now is the time to share it. I keep saying, ‘I really hope there’s a time we won’t need to share it,’ but it keeps remaining relevant. This is a musical expression of what we’re seeing every day, this police brutality that is completely out of hand…’ ‘So Done’, featuring up and coming artist Khalid, presents this notion and understanding of not living for other people’s expectations of what they expect you ought to be or hopefully become, as we understand that when we live our lives based upon what people think our lives should be, the pressure to perform is so much higher than when we are to shrug off people’s expectations. To live the way that we want results in us being freer, understanding that to live in light of what people think of us, is to live out of fear and worry. ‘Love Looks Better’, the last remaining ‘pre-release’ song on the album (unveiled on September 10th, a week prior to September 18th– the actual release date of the album), is a great reminder for us all to stop chasing the wind, running around trying to be busy and look busy for others, but instead just spend time with our loved ones, and to just be still and be in the presence of the people we love and love us unconditionally.
There rest of the album was unveiled to us in September, and while I myself still feel gravity and weight towards more of the radio singles compared to the rest of the album, even now, these songs nevertheless carry a lot of weight and meaning behind them, making ALICIA one of the most emotive and poignant releases of 2020 thus far. ‘Truth Without Love’ is a song indeed about this concept of truth without love, and at often at times throughout history, and especially now living in a time where the concept of truth can be very perverted; this understanding that to speak the truth with no love is just to speak facts, without any dialogue and discussion. It’s verbal diarrhea, speaking without consideration of the other, or, in the words of pastor Timothy Keller, ‘…Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it…’ Alicia’s 2 minute song attempts for us to grapple around this theme and thought, that truth these days has become elusive, difficult to define because there’s so many people’s conceptions and definitions of what they believe the truth to be. ‘Authors of Forever’ is a pop song if ever there is any, and a track that is ever inspired by the divine if there ever is one. The song itself is a song of reassurance, that as long as we’re breathing, it’s alright. How we live our lives is up to us, and we have the choice to either love or hate, to doubt or trust, and understand that we are born on our own, and that we die on our own, that how we live in-between is up to us. A song that gives us a sense of hope, but a sobering realisation of our own mortality, ‘Authors of Forever’ has the potential to reach a lot of people with its impact…that’s if the song is given a chance on the radio in the upcoming months ahead.
‘Wasted Energy’, featuring Tanzanian recording artist Diamond Platnumz, is a realisation song, that the person you have been spending so much energy on in a relationship is never going to reciprocate it, and that the relationship you may have thought you had, is probably one-sided after all. ‘Wasted Energy’ by far is one of the most free-flowing songs on the album, no real structure, just a bunch of stanzas and Diamond’s vocal addition at the end of the song, a reminder that often songs don’t necessarily need the structure that you think, for it to have power and mean something. Alicia also imparts to us this theme of love and loss in ‘3 Hour Drive’, as this song, explored deep within the documentary Song Exploder, is a reminder of the fragility and the futility of life, and how it is very short and uncertain. Both Alicia and guest vocalist Sampha were singing the song from two different perspectives- Alicia from the POV of being a new mother, to Sampha and his own feelings of losing his mother. And so this phrase in the song ‘’you give me life’ means two things to two people, and a reminder that often the same song can extrapolate different meanings, depending on who is listening to the track and their life experiences. ‘Me x 7’ presents this theme about shifting perspective from yourself to others, and caring about people the way that you care about yourself self-centeredly, while ‘Gramercy Park’ speaks about this poignant and ever-confronting topic of trying to change yourself for another person- the result from love, to a point when the person falls in love with you, not because of you, but because of the image you want to portray to them, which is not even you in the first place. ‘You Save Me’, a song about admiration and adoration to a significant other, can be also interpreted as a song being sung to God, stating that He saves us again and again, often on a regular daily basis, and even in the moments you believe you don’t need saving. The album then rounds out with ‘Jill Scott’ (featuring Jill Scott), a song about love in all its facets, and the connection that people have on a soul-to-soul level, when confronted with love in its truest form- the elevation and the admiration of the other, far more than the place that you give yourself. Love is about sacrifice, about compromise, about placing someone else’s needs ahead of your own. ‘Jill Scott’, through Alicia’s singing and Jill’s spoken word; ‘Jill Scott’ nevertheless ought to be a reminder of the necessity of love, and that love in its bravest, truest form, never fails and is reminding us all that love, no matter how it looks like, is needed in 2020, for such a time as this.
With Alicia being influenced in her music by artists like Whitney Houston, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Prince, Barbara Streisand and Stevie Wonder (to name a few), and influencing tons more with her craft, from Adele, Rihanna and Emeli Sande, to H.E.R., James Bay and Alessia Cara (also to name a few!); we can see Alicia’s music (and ALICIA the album as well) inspiring a new generation to take leaps of faith as the musicians of tomorrow take risks into the unknown, using Alicia’s music as a guide and a way to have permission to try new things sonically, thematically and stylistically. Alicia’s music has continued to have its effect, and will continue to do so in years to come- her self-titled album ALICIA, that has a sense of gratitude and thanks around it, is a nice reminder to always be appreciative of music artists that are willing to push the envelope and challenge what was assumed to be true for ages. Alicia is one such artist, that we are thankful for, as we see her boldness to step outside the ‘rules’ of music and marry together genres that may not otherwise have been married had it not been for Alicia and her signature style. Nevertheless, Alicia is here to stay, and as we head into the rest of 2020, let us become beacons of change and positive encouragement- and if artists like Alicia can undertake such feats, maybe there’s hope for us little guys yet! Well done Alicia for this self-titled album, one of my favourites of 2020 thus far. A must-have if you love similar artists like John Legend, Lecrae, Jennfier Hudson and Kirk Franklin; to name a few!
4 songs to listen to: Time Machine, Show Me Love, Underdog, Good Job
RIYL: John Legend, Lecrae, Koryn Hawthorne, Kirk Franklin, Jennifer Hudson